Former University of Otago student Emeritus Professor of Psychiatric Neurobiology Anna Wirz-Justice has had an illustrious career in sleep and depression research. The multi award-winning chronobiologist from the University of Basel’s Centre for Chronobiology in Switzerland says Otago made her the “compulsive scientist” she is today.
During a visit to her uncle in Washington DC’s prestigious National Institute of Mental Health while on an AFS exchange, a teenage Anna Wirz-Justice wrote in her journal that “being a researcher is so exciting. I want to be a researcher when I grow up.”
Decades later, a grown-up Wirz-Justice began her own groundbreaking research into light therapy at the same institute – sharing an apartment with that same influential uncle. Although she doesn’t remember writing those words at 16, Wirz-Justice says the experience in Washington – and the passion and excitement she saw in her uncle – started her on a path towards a 44-year career in biomedical research.
Wirz-Justice was responsible for introducing light therapy to treat seasonal depression in Europe. “This is the only treatment in psychiatry that has come from basic neuroscience,” she says.
Wirz-Justice and her team of researchers at the Psychiatric University Clinics Basel were also one of the first to extensively study the antidepressant effects of sleep deprivation in the early ’70s. They went on to spend more than 30 years of research on the basics of circadian and seasonal rhythms and sleep regulation in order to understand these non-pharmacological clinical applications.
In the constant routine sleep laboratory located in Basel – where the subject stays awake in bed for more than a day under very controlled conditions – the focus went on to thermophysiology (finding out that you need warm feet to fall asleep) and what changes the biological clock makes with age (that is, it gets weaker).
“My time at Otago as a chemistry student made me a very compulsive scientist. Science is such fun – and I’ve always been fortunate to have such wonderful colleagues.
“Sleep and circadian rhythms research has developed so much over the 40 years I’ve been involved in it, so that sleep medicine has become a medical subspecialty with more than 90 clinical diagnoses of sleep disorders. When I began, sleep was something on the side, but we know so much more about it now. Our chronobiology research has many applications, from shift work to jet lag.
“For example, the ‘lark’ cannot do the night shift and the ‘owl’ can’t do the morning shift without making mistakes and getting ill. It’s a bit too complicated to match chronotype with the right shift, but that’s the way we have to go. They call it personalised medicine, but I call it personalised chronobiology.”
Wirz-Justice, a PhD graduate from University College, London, has made a catalogue of significant contributions in the field of sleep and depression research – particularly in light therapy for seasonal affective disorder. She is a former president of the Society for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms, a winner of the Anna Monika Prize for Depression Research and the Scholar's Prize of the City of Basel, awarded for outstanding achievement.
“Sleep disturbances usually precede a depressive episode and they are also an intrinsic part of depression,” says Wirz-Justice. “The paradox is that staying awake all night can, within hours, improve a serious melancholic depression. This is quite extraordinary and was discovered 40 years ago – we did some of the first studies in Basel after it was discovered in Germany. Sleep deprivation can get people out of depression within hours.
“However, you have to find a way of keeping patients out of depression (they often relapse after recovery sleep) and that’s taken a few decades, like giving them drugs or light. You can’t patent staying awake and you can’t make a pill, so nobody uses it.
"Why I’m still working after all these years of retirement is that if there are non-pharmacological, but biologically-based treatments that get people out of serious depression within hours, then why aren’t we using them?”
This is radical thinking from a girl who hails from the bottom of the “edge of the world”. But, it seems, science was always in the blood – her father was a chemist, and so Wirz-Justice studied chemistry.
“I was always good at science. But one didn’t know what one wanted to be – there were no career thoughts in the ’50s.
“Everything has been non-linear. I never had a career as such – I just meandered around and got into neuroscience because I discovered that organic chemistry was more interesting when it hit the brain, so I moved from chemistry and, instead, wanted to know how the brain works.”
After two years studying basic science at Canterbury, Wirz-Justice went to the University of Otago to pursue biochemistry and philosophy. There she met Jocelyn Harris – later to become professor and head of Otago’s Department of English – and began getting involved in Otago’s active arts community.
“Most of my time at Otago was spent having an amazing time. There were 2,000 students in the early ’60s, not 22,000, and we knew everybody, and there was this intellectual ferment and curiosity.
“I used to take the bus up to Maori Hill with R.A.K Mason, the Robert Burns Fellow, and be quite tongue-tied with awe to be sitting next to this famous poet; we talked about the weather.
“At university anything was possible and, in Dunedin, I met these arts people and took part in this famous satirical revue called Yes or No as the Mood Takes Us, modelled on the Cambridge revues of the ’60s. I wasn’t an actress type at all, so it was exciting to be involved. Our rehearsals took place at the marvellous home of Rodney Kennedy with even Charles Brasch sometimes attending.”
Her love of the arts has extended throughout her career. Despite being firmly science oriented in her ongoing studies, Wirz-Justice, who won Otago’s Philosophy prize back in 1962, neatly crosses the boundaries between science and the arts in her extensive collaborations with artists, architects and designers, inspired by the complexities of neuroscience. In 2011, she collaborated to bring fashion designer Eri Matsui’s spring-summer collection for Tokyo Fashion Week, modelled on the theme of chronobiology and sleep, to the World Sleep Congress in Kyoto.
The world-renowned researcher has also interacted with architects to enhance the circadian impact of indoor lighting on sleep, mood and performance, and helped create a light room in the Swiss Pavilion at the Venice Bienniale, Physiological Architecture.
She continues to advise on the uses of light therapy in buildings, transferring the knowledge about the biological effects of light on human behaviour to architectural and lighting design concepts, specifically in nursing homes for patients with dementia.
Like many other researchers, Wirz-Justice has been eager to share her knowledge with colleagues and students, and has attended countless conferences and given many lectures. In 2012, long after she officially retired, she was invited by the president of the Czech Psychiatric Association to develop the first Diploma in Chronotherapy to integrate light therapy and sleep deprivation into official guidelines for clinical practice and medical insurance reimbursement in the Czech Republic.
Earlier this year, Wirz-Justice received the Award of the Australian Society for Medical Research (ASMR) Medal for her contribution to sleep research.
Returning to the home of her undergraduate study before going to Australia to receive her medal and conduct a lecture series during the ASMR Medical Research Week, Wirz-Justice looked back on her years at Otago with fondness.
“Our generation was always at the edge of a change in the paradigm – feminism, left wing, being a hippie, trying out substances – we tried out different things and pushed boundaries because it was the times. My experience at Otago was all part of that. It got me some way to making me who I am today.”